This article is part review, part explanation of some of the cool concepts in Cixin Liu’s The Three-Body Problem (and, more generally, the whole of the trilogy: Remembrance of Earth’s Past).
If you’ve been around this blog this year, then you know I fell into a bit of a slump. I was reading things, but nothing seemed to connect. In fact, it all seemed derivative, flat, and downright bad.
I’ve gotten out of that somehow, and I seem to have hit a period where most things I read (or movies I see) draw me in immediately and seem imaginative and fresh.
General Thoughts on The Three-Body Problem
The Three-Body Problem by Liu Cixin is unlike anything I’ve read before.
It’s pretty difficult to explain why, because I don’t want to spoil anything. Part of the fun of this trilogy is that there are M. Night Shyamalan type twists (things that make you rethink everything that happened before and make it all make sense).
When these types of plot twists happen once at the end of a book or movie, it feels like a cheap gimmick and can be off-putting. When they happened dozens of times across this book trilogy, they left me in awe of the structure of the narrative.
You’ll think you’ve finally got a grasp on things near the end of Book 2, and then you learn that you had no idea what was really going on. As I said, there are dozens of these, and each time you think it can’t happen again, it somehow does.
The books are also filled with lots of neat ideas (even if not scientific).
I can describe one that happens in the first book that won’t ruin any plot points.
The first idea is to notice what happens if you “unfold” a two-dimensional object into one dimension. Here’s an example of a solid square being pulled into a string:
Now, convince yourself this is the case whenever you take a higher dimensional object and “unfold” it into lower dimensions. You’ll always get an arbitrarily large new thing (meaning it has infinite size) no matter how small the original thing was.
A square unfolds into an infinite length “curve.” A solid (3-D) sphere unfolds into an infinite area collection of (2-D) sheets. This is a pattern: n-dimensional things unfold into infinite size (n-1)-dimensional things.
This works even if the n-dimensional thing is finite and small!
Next, Cixin Liu takes the concept of string theory seriously and says: what if a proton is actually a six-dimensional string curled up into compactified dimensions?
Well, with super good technology and a full understanding of the physics, maybe the proton could be unfolded into an arbitrarily large three-dimensional object.
In that case, we could store infinite amounts of information in it. We could even make it the best supercomputer AI ever made. Then we could fold it back up, and it would be roughly the size of a proton again.
Just imagine what that could do!
The trilogy is truly an “ideas” book. It’s kind of fascinating how strong the ideas alone were to keep me wanting to read. The plot definitely waned at points and character motivations were weak, but I didn’t really care.
To me, this book was essentially the opposite of Seveneves. Seveneves was a bunch of cool ideas that got tedious to read because none of them served the plot. They were just Neal Stephenson spewing every idea he ever had into a plotless mess.
In contrast, every single cool idea in The Three-Body Problem series advances the plot in a meaningful way, and wow, there’s a ton of them.
I can’t recommend this trilogy enough if you’re into hard sci-fi (and my warning about character/dragging plot doesn’t completely alienate you).